Reworking Southern classics for healthier eating

Sweet potato gratin and pork chops

Virginia Willis is not only an authority on Southern cooking, a French-trained chef, and a veteran cookbook author; she is also a proud Southerner who adores eating and cooking for family and friends. So when she needed to drop a few pounds and generally lighten up her diet, the most important criterion for her new lifestyle was that all the food had to taste delicious.

The result is Lighten Up, Y’all, a deeply personal collection of Virginia’s new favorite recipes. (You can enter our contest for your chance to win a copy of the book and check out her book tour dates in our  Events Calendar.) Southern staples are reworked, from  warm, melting Broccoli Mac and Cheese to Old-Fashioned Buttermilk Pie. Each dish is packed with real Southern flavor, but made with healthier, more wholesome ingredients and techniques. This isn’t Virginia’s first foray into revisiting Southern classics. In a previous cookbook, Basic to Brilliant, Y’all: 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company, she transformed already wonderful dishes into an all-out show stoppers.

Virginia has graciously allowed us to excerpt two complete recipes from Lighten Up Y’all, Bourbon Grilled Pork Chops and Sweet Potato Gratin with Herb Crumble. We hope you enjoy these fresh new takes on classic Southern recipes.  



Pork chops are a tender, quick-cooking cut of meat. In fact, so quick-cooking, that they are actually very easy to overcook. Cooking these chops on the bone, instead of using boneless chops, will help the pork cook more evenly, and make them less likely to dry out. Just make sure to trim away as much fat as possible for healthier results. The tangy Peach Barbecue Sauce, flavored with the zip of ginger and vinegar, and sweetened with natural honey, would be incredible on grilled or roasted chicken, as well.

I’ll be honest with you, this is a splurge meal since we’re cooking the meat on the bone and serving it with barbecue sauce-a plan-for-it, make-sure-to-work-out-that-day dinner. But, it’s worth it! I find it so depressing for someone to say to me, “Oh, you can’t have that on your diet, can you?” It’s not about “no,” it’s about saying “yes!” I can have anything as long as I am accountable with my exercise and stick to my plan. So, believe me, I am going to gnaw on this bone until it shines.

4 peaches (about 1 1/4 pounds), halved, pitted, and quartered
2 medium ripe tomatoes, seeded and quartered
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons bourbon
1/4 cup coarse kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
Freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 cups boiling water
3 cups ice cubes
4 center cut, bone-in pork chops, about 1-inch thick, well trimmed, (2 3/4 to 3 pounds)

Pork Chop: Calories 327 Fat 13 g Carbs 7 g Fiber .4 g Protein 44 g
Peach Barbecue Sauce per tablespoon: Calories 19.18 Fat .4 g Carbs 4 g Fiber .4 g Protein .3 g

In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, puree the peaches and tomatoes until smooth; set aside. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the ginger and cook, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the reserved peach-tomato puree, vinegar, honey, and bourbon; season with salt and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat, then decrease the heat to simmer. Cook until the mixture is reduced by half and thickened, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust for the seasoning with salt and pepper. Reserve 1⁄4 cup sauce for basting the chops, and keep the remaining sauce warm in the saucepan until ready to serve.

Meanwhile, place the remaining 1⁄4 cup salt and brown sugar in a medium heatproof bowl. Pour over the 2 cups boiling water and stir to dissolve. Add the ice cubes and stir to cool. Add the pork chops, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and refrigerate to marinate, about 30 minutes. (Do not marinate any longer or the pork will be too salty. If you can’t cook it right at the 30-minute mark, remove the pork from the marinade and refrigerate until ready to continue.) Remove from the brine, rinse well, and thoroughly dry pat with paper towels. Set aside.

Season the pork chops with pepper. Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn all burners to high, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.

Or, preheat a grill pan over medium-high heat until hot. Place the pork chops in the grill pan or on the grill and grill for 3 to 5 minutes per side or until the internal temperature reaches 145°F, brushing with Peach Barbecue Sauce in the last few minutes. Remove to a plate and cover with aluminum foil to rest and let the juices redistribute, 3 to 5 minutes. Serve immediately with reserved warm sauce on the side.


An instant-read thermometer is your best friend when it comes to cooking meat on the grill. Sometimes it’s hard to gauge the doneness of the meat, especially when you’ve got hot and cold spots on the grill, distractions like kids running around the yard, and the inevitable conversation magnet that a grill can be. An accurate digital instant-read thermometer will be your best grill-friend who will save you from overcooked chops or underdone chicken.


Earthy, rich sweet potatoes are one of fall’s most delicious vegetables and pair wonderfully with pecans, one of fall’s most delicious nuts. You’ll be shocked when you take a bite of this dish. Everyone always assumes they will be hit with a rush of sugar, and yet this sweet potato dish is distinctively full-flavored and savory, a welcome departure from typical marshmallow-topped and bourbon-drenched sweet potato dishes. This recipe utilizes whole wheat pastry flour, which is more nutritionally dense than refined all-purpose flour, but also is not as dense and heavy as regular whole wheat flour. Look for Bob’s Red Mill whole wheat pastry flour in well-stocked grocery stores. I know Thanksgiving can be tricky. No one wants to give up a favorite dish, but slip this one into the mix and it’s certain to become a family favorite.

If you want to take a serious shortcut for this dish you can substitute one 29-ounce can of pumpkin puree or canned sweet potatoes. The herb-pecan topping tastes equally great with both.

3 large sweet potatoes

1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour, plus more for your hands
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for seasoning
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning
3 tablespoons 2 percent milk
1 tablespoon pure olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 teaspoon firmly packed dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

Calories 98.02 Fat 7.35 g Carbs 7.28 g Fiber 1.41 g Protein 1.98 g

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. (This will help with clean up.) Spray a 2-quart shallow baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Set aside.

Using a fork, pierce the sweet potatoes in several places and place on the prepared baking sheet. Bake until fork-tender, about 50 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool.

When the potatoes are almost tender, prepare the topping: In a small bowl combine the chopped pecans, flour, Parmesan, baking powder, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Add the milk, oil, and sage. Stir until well combined. Set aside.

When the sweet potatoes are cool enough to handle, peel the potatoes, discarding the skin. Place the pulp in large bowl. Add the brown sugar and nutmeg. Season with salt and pepper. Smash the squash with a potato masher until chunky.

Transfer the sweet potatoes to the prepared baking dish. Lightly flour your hands and crumble the topping in small, cherry size pieces on top of the sweet potatoes. Transfer to the oven and bake until golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Serve immediately. 

Photos and recipes copyright Lighten Up Y’all by Virginia Willis (Ten Speed Press). Reprinted with permission.

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